Apr 1, 1978
Democracy as Puritanism
“Mencken hammers at the reader again and again with the incontestable truths of the iron law of oligarchy.”
Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken. Octagon Books, 212 pp., $11.50.
Mencken was never a man to mince words, and his classic Notes on Democracy provides them in twelve-pound bricks. Nowhere was Mencken more free-swinging than in this frontal assault on the most sacred of all sacred cows, the fraud of democracy.
Two things should be noted about Mencken’s political philosophy: First, he did not advocate adoption of any other system of government to replace the obvious inanities of democracy. He held all governments and all statist ideologies in contempt—although not, as this book demonstrates, in equal contempt. “Is it (democracy) inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest?” Mencken asked. “Then so is every other form of government; all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men.” Second, in the face of almost unanimous faith in the virtues of the “average guy” and his great ability to rule not only himself, but his betters as well, Mencken found it necessary to resort to strong statements and harsh language in order to debunk this ridiculous canard. At times his incendiary prose almost sears the eyeballs of the reader. One should not, however, take a great deal of his aristocratic blustering in all seriousness, although it is one of the great charms of his book; no one was more artful at ladling it out than he was. Mencken believed in both the potential nobility of free men and the necessity of freedom for noble men, and stated on many an occasion that the only thing he really believed in unflinchingly and consistently throughout his life was liberty, for the masses and for the “natural aristocracy.”
Let us, then, take this book as the brilliant polemical spleen-venting of an enraged intellectual, not one cut from the common mold which seeks to regulate and manipulate the masses, but one who sees the goodness which exceptional men Can accomplish being dragged down by a fraudulent, egalitarian philosophy. This philosophy is one, moreover, which fails to elevate hoi polloi and only manages to bring the superior specimens of humankind down to their level. Mencken was not, as the contents of this book reveal, a system builder; but then few men are. His virtue lay in his style and in his brilliant criticism of what he saw around him, and not in any systematic program or Weltanschauung.
Liberty and democray were incompatible for Mencken because of the simple fact that while many men may exercise their freedom, few understand it. “When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage. When it wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not directed wholly to that end. And its second is to butcher all professional libertarians.” Further, Mencken expounds, “The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind. He can image and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty—for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest—but the reality is incomprehensible to him. And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage. The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure.”
Perhaps echoing the sixteenth century French libertarian Etienne de la Boetie, Mencken goes on to state that this “inferior man” can “no more comprehend it [liberty] than he can comprehend honor. What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors. He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.” However, whereas de la Boetie thought that the masses were hoodwinked and fooled by a clever network of automatic and systematic oppression, Mencken thought their oppression by the state so obvious that only stupidity could explain their acquiescence. After all, he asks, “Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority … cannot imagine taking the risk.”
While the masses are robbed and exploited by their supposedly self-chosen ruler(s), the superior men of culture, intellect, and virtue are prevented from exercising these attributes by that most basic of guiding forces in democracy, envy. “The aim of democracy is to break all … free spirits to the common harness. It tries to iron them out, to pump them dry of selfrespect, to make docile John Does of them. The measure of its success is the extent to which such men are brought down, and made common. The measure of civilization is the extent to which they resist and survive.” Herein Mencken finds “the identity of democracy and Puritanism.”
“Puritan legislation, especially in the field of public law,” we are informed, “is a thing of many grandiose pretensions and a few simple and ignoble realities. The Puritan, discussing it voluptuously, always tries to convince himself (and the rest of us) that it is grounded upon altruistic and evangelical motives—that its aim is to work the other fellow’s benefit against the other fellow’s will. Such is the theory behind Prohibition, comstockery, vice crusading and all its other familiar devices of oppression. The theory, of course, is false. The Puritan’s actual motives are (a) to punish the other fellow for having a better time in the world, and (b) to bring the other fellow down to his unhappy level…. Primarily, he is against every human act that he is incapable of himself—safely.” This desire to make sure that everyone is as unhappy as the Puritan would be largely impotent were it not for the state. For, as the economists would say, the Puritan is able to socialize his costs through the agency of the state, by making the very victims of his meddling designs foot the bill for their own railroading, and by using this robbery to hire armed thugs to enforce his intentions. “It is this freedom from personal risk that is the secret of the Prohibitionists’ continued frenzy…. If they had to meet their victims face to face, there would be a different story to tell. But, like their brethren, the comstocks and the professional patriots, they seldom encounter this embarrassment. Instead, they turn the officers of the law to the uses of their mania. More, they reinforce the officers of the law with an army of bravos sworn to take their orders and do their bidding—the army of so-called Prohibition enforcement officers, mainly made up of professional criminals.”
The Puritan operates by making the victims of his meddling designs foot the bill for their own railroading.
The most elevated of statesmen under democracy, while “ostensibly … an altruist devoted whole-heartedly to the service of his fellow-men, and so abjectly public-spirited that his private interest is nothing to him,” is in fact “a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole aim in life is to butter his parsnips.” To the democratic politician, “anything is moral that furthers the main concern of his soul, which is to keep a place at the public trough. That place is one of public honor, and public honor is the thing that caresses him and makes him happy. It is also one of power, and power is the commodity that he has for sale.”
A policeman is “a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him (mass man) (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, YMCA secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls. It is a democractic invention.”
Mencken hammers at the reader again and again with the incontestable truths of the iron law of oligarchy. Rational decisions, in the anthropomorphic sense, cannot be arrived at by more than a handful of people. It is an illusion to believe that the masses choose this or that public policy qua masses; they are manipulated through the state by unscrupulous men for their own purposes, purposes which rarely, if ever, coincide with any supposed “public interest.” Of public opinion Mencken tells us that “Walter Lippmann, searching for it, could not find it. A century before him Fichte said ‘es gar nicht existirte.’ Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fears. It is piped to central factories, where it is flavoured and coloured, and put into cans.” Now that’s writing!
It is tempting to go on and on quoting in this fashion. The problem is that one ends up putting quote marks around the entire book and simply prefixing and appending introductory and concluding paragraphs. Unfortunately, the editors rejected that notion due to the constraints of space. All that I can suggest is that you buy and read this book, one in a long series of Mencken reprints issued by Octagon. While many of his statements are harsher than what one might say oneself, they are expressed in so exhilirating a manner as to delight the mind of any libertarian or free spirit.
Tom G. Palmer is former head of the Young Libertarian Alliance and is a frequent contributor to LR.